Sunday, July 09, 2006

Confirmation bias - 2

I have written before about confirmation bias. I confessed then that I yield to it more often that I would hope. What brought me back to the topic? It was a comment by the old wasp that he had instilled in his children “...well built BS meters...” which, on the surface sounds like a pretty danged number one good idea. But then the settling little thought of “Where is the zero BS mark” came sneaking back into the paradigm.

[sheepish grin] I have often noted that "thrill of the chase" feeling when you find an apt and strong support for a comment, or thought. So, a brief google, and the application of some personal confirmation bias later, and I had an interesting selection of reading matter to wade my way through.

Now there is a scientific basis for the “syndrome”.

During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, while undergoing an fMRI bran scan, 30 men--half self-described as "strong" Republicans and half as "strong" Democrats--were tasked with assessing statements by both George W. Bush and John Kerry in which the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. Not surprisingly, in their assessments Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both let their own candidate off the hook.
The neuroimaging results, however, revealed that the part of the brain most associated with reasoning--the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex--was quiescent. Most active were the orbital frontal cortex, which is involved in the processing of emotions; the anterior cingulate, which is associated with conflict resolution; the posterior cingulate, which is concerned with making judgments about moral accountability; and--once subjects had arrived at a conclusion that made them emotionally comfortable--the ventral striatum, which is related to reward and pleasure.


To me, that sounds as though so very old, primitive, structures and responses are involved. I needed this picture here to try and envisage just which parts of the brain the article was talking about. Hopefully it wil appear below as well.



Now, my interpretation of all that is probably wrong, open to further interpretation, and oversimplified. So I will set the next paragraph in place...

"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," Westen is quoted as saying in an Emory University press release. "What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts."


Hmm, conflicts? Between emotion and what?

Interestingly, neural circuits engaged in rewarding selective behaviors were activated. "Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones," Westen said.


So, is this the process of rationalisation of perception and emotion that I suspected? Perhaps so.

What I do know is that it always feels “good” to find something that is (to me at least) cogent, logical, and which supports the line of thinking that I believe is “truth”. It is a “profound feeling” that comes from very deep in my mind.

That is one reason why I have steered clear of topics such as Israel and Iraq on thse pages in recent times; not that I have been silent in contributing to comment debates.

The power of confirmation bias at the emotive level - the feel-good factor, the power and fluidity of communication created by having support for a contentious argument – is a dangerous point from which to start.

But that is not the worst of it...

The implications of the findings reach far beyond politics. A jury assessing evidence against a defendant, a CEO evaluating information about a company or a scientist weighing data in favor of a theory will undergo the same cognitive process. What can we do about it?

In science we have built-in self-correcting machinery. Strict double-blind controls are required in experiments, in which neither the subjects nor the experimenters know the experimental conditions during the data-collection phase. Results are vetted at professional conferences and in peer-reviewed journals. Research must be replicated in other laboratories unaffiliated with the original researcher.

Disconfirmatory evidence, as well as contradictory interpretations of the data, must be included in the paper. Colleagues are rewarded for being skeptical. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.


I have never served on a jury. I shall probably not escape for all that much longer. There will be all manner of personal attitudes that could be challenged by the experience; not the least of which would be my ability to objectively assess evidence and the way in which it is presented.

So, where does my BS meter point to at its apparent zero point? Unlike the old wasp, my parents did not “teach” the differences between “good” and “bad” politics, or religion, or even personal relationships for that matter. There was strong emphasis on personal morality, and the need to observe the societal norms. But that does not of itself constitute a "BS measurement".

That is quite unlike the grounding my wife got in the precepts and foundations of the Labour Party. I swam around in the nether regions of the Communists, National, Labour and eventually the realisation that there was no fundamental difference between Andersen and Muldoon, between Nash, Brash, and Peters. (Is it any surprise that we do not discuss politics at length?) At the very base of each of these people are two things –

The unquenchable belief that they are right and every one else is wrong.

The desire to leverage, extract and maintain every last morsel of fame, wealth and power possible from their respective party followings.

So, in terms of “centering the BS meter”, I guess that there is really very little difference between the KKK member who teaches his kids that all blacks are inferior and should be kept only as pets; the Unionist shop steward who teaches his kids that Savage was a god, and that Kirk sat at his right hand; the businessman who teaches his kids to support National because Brash and Keys will return to them all of the taxes that “those other politicians take to give to the unworthy and poor”.

It all comes down to where the zero point is on the BS meter.

To that extent, the old wasp had it wrong. What I suspect he really meant was that he had given his kids a good grounding in where their truth meter was pointed. It is just the inverse of what he was saying, and it operates in exactly the same manner...

For myself, I will stick with the closure of the SciAm article that I started with –

Skepticism is the antidote for the confirmation bias


I might add the word ONLY in there, just before "antidote".

1 comment:

neoneoconned said...

interesting ideas. Snag is that there are differences between people who support the KKK and those who do not, even if they are equally as irrational in their beliefs. Some ideas are just better, more moral and practicable than others. The hard bit is working out which these are.

Septicism is a great thing but is of little value when a decision has to be made on the basis of limited information. For example in deciding whether to invade another country being sceptical is no use - you have to make a decision for or against and stick to it.

The problem people like unpleasant wasp have is an inability to cope with uncertainty. We might all be wrong but have to take the best guess we can under the circumstances.

This is why emotions can be useful as they give us some kind of guidelines. Personally i am repulsed by military action so my kneejerk response is anti-war. In some circumstances the evidence is so overwhelming that this basic impulse is overcome.